The Naming and Grading of Alpaca Fiber
Perhaps long ago someone said something that would be interpreted today as, “Wow! This alpaca fiber is fine. In fact, it’s SUPER fine. Let’s call it that from now on. Superfine.” While that thought has a bit of logic, the actual classification of fibers has a great deal more to it.
Classification takes into account factors such as the diameter of fibers, the curvature of fibers and staple length. These measurements can be made precisely and scientifically with high technology equipment in laboratories such as Yocom-McColl in Denver, CO. Their website describes in detail the sampling and testing of fibers.
Trained and experienced graders can sort and classify fiber by hand. In Peru, for example, hand grading alpaca is a traditional skill passed down through generations. For most applications, hand grading works well, but breeders seeking to propagate specific characteristics in fiber, such as fineness or crimp, often call on a laboratory.
The diameter of alpaca fiber is important because–along with curvature, staple and color–it determines how the fiber will be used, how it will be classified and, therefore, how much it is worth. The diameter is measured in microns. One micron equals one millionth of a meter which equals 1/25,400th of an inch. The finest fibers have the fewest microns of width. The fiber diameter accounts for 70-80% of the value of the fleece. The generally accepted grades of alpaca are as follows:
- Ultra Fine (Royal baby) – < 20 microns
- Superfine (Baby) – 20 – 22.9 microns
- Fine – 23 – 25.9 microns
- Medium 26 – 28.9 microns
- Intermediate – 29 – 32 microns
- Robust – 32 – 35 microns
Fiber labeled Baby Alpaca is not necessarily sheared from a baby alpaca (cria). Some adult alpacas continue to produce very fine fiber for years. The coarsest fibers usually are used for batts, felting and stuffing. Very little is discarded.
To put these measurements in perspective, human hair ranges from about 75 to more than 150 microns in diameter. The finest camelid fiber is that of the vicun᷉a, measuring an average diameter of 12.5 microns. The vicuña roams wild in the Andes and, in Peru, is protected by law from poaching and exploitation. While an adult alpaca typically yields five to seven pounds of fleece annually, the smaller vicun᷉a is sheared only every two or three years and yields less than two pounds, making vicuña fiber more costly.
The curvature of fiber is related to crimp but does not affect fineness. In the two types of alpacas—the huacaya and the suri—there is a big difference in crimp. In the pictures below, the crimp typical of huacaya fleece is obvious. The suri alpaca fiber is smoother and silkier and is suitable for finely woven garments and has good draping qualities. The straighter the fiber, the less loft there will be in the yarn made from it. Curvature and crimp have less to do with the grading of fiber than diameter and more to do with how the fiber will be used.
Staple length refers to the average length of a group of fibers. After fleece is sorted by diameter, curvature and color, it is sorted by fiber length. Longer fibers are easier to spin than shorter ones. Mixing long and short fibers can result in decreased strength and an uneven or “bumpy” yarn or “hairy” yarn.
In addition to technical measurements, color is a determining factor in fiber choice. Color possibilities are practically limitless. Depending on the source of information and the fibers’ country of origin, naturally occurring colors are as few as 12 up to as many as 52. Colors range from white to black with shades of fawn, brown, gray and even rose in between. Natural colors can be mixed for special effects, and dye can be used to create vibrant colors. Lighter colors such as white and the paler fawns take dye well.
Alpaca fibers can be blended with other fibers or filaments, both natural and synthetic, to enhance specific properties such as stretchiness, stability, washability and luster. Silk is a filament and can be cut to the same length as a given group of alpaca fibers. It adds a sheen or luster to the final product. Polyamide is used because of its high durability and strength. Spandex has superior moisture-wicking abilities and stretchability. At Classic Alpaca, items that are made of blends are clearly labeled with the percentage of each fiber used.
Alpaca is fine in every sense of the word. Because alpaca fleece does not contain lanolin, it is hypoallergenic. It has inherent thermal properties, making it exceptionally warm for its weight. It is water repellent and has high breathability and strength. Its softness and feeling of luxury is often compared to cashmere, especially in the finer grades. The care that goes into production of yarns, fabrics and finished products has helped alpaca maintain its reputation as “The Gold of the Andes.”